While large, established OEMs often have sizable budgets, broad partnerships, and new technology to keep pace with the changes driven by Industry 4.0, smaller manufacturers and technology startups often find themselves with less time, capital, or expertise to dive headfirst into the new, rapidly swelling ocean of automation. This is where global, high-service distributors can play a critical role in curating, testing, and providing the technology while small-to-medium sized companies need to take advantage of the speed and efficiency offered by today’s technologies.

We hear the buzzwords daily—artificial intelligence (AI), bots, cloud computing, machine learning, robotics, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—but what the Fourth Industrial Revolution really comes down to is connected devices and data and how that data is used to accelerate business decisions, efficiency, and growth.

Industry 4.0 encompasses so much new smart technology that staying current can be overwhelming for many companies. Distributors can play a key role in helping these manufacturers, buyers, and supply chain professionals make the right decisions on data usage and new technologies, so they don’t fall behind.

“Distributors can play a key role in helping manufacturers, buyers, and supply chain professionals make the right decisions on data usage and new technologies”

At RS Components, we realized that many customers aren’t sure what they need or what, among the newest technologies, will have the most impact on their businesses. So we changed our approach to be more consultative based on our own usage of technologies like AI, bots, cloud computing, and machine learning. As distributors, by using the latest technology in our own operations, we can bring more knowledge and more credibility to our conversations with customers, ultimately bringing more value to their supply chain, manufacturing environment, and channel strategies. Our knowledge and experience allow us to proactively share solutions, demonstrate how those solutions work in our own operations, and their potential impact on customers’ business. The distributor’s role has become a sort of curator of technology—we are uniquely positioned to experiment, advise, and supply.

For example, at RS Components, we put more automation in our distribution centers to drive speed and efficiency. The data we receive helps us make better decisions around what, when, and how we buy—all things that are relevant to manufacturers in their own supply chains and inventory. We use AI and recently developed our own bot technology for quicker, more cost-efficient, and effective customer service. We share with our customers what we learn in-house and determine how they can apply similar technology to meet their own goals.

Manufacturing purchasers and supply chain professionals need to start seeing their distributors as more than just component suppliers. Distributors can play a much larger role in educating, collaborating, and streamlining the knowledge-gathering process for customers.

The Commitment Needed from Manufacturers

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is like a fast-approaching tidal wave and we’re already knee-deep, yet many manufacturers still don’t fully understand the technologies and implications enough to invest strategically. They may be using certain technologies, sensors and collecting data, but they’re not entirely sure what to do with that data and are looking to see what others do first. That’s a great way to fall behind.

Manufacturers must focus on three main things to thrive in Industry 4.0:

1. Management must commit to a disruptive mindset. The courage and commitment to innovate must be present and apparent at the highest level of the organization. This includes a commitment to invest the time, resources, and money needed to digitally transform and grow through innovation. Management must have a long-term appetite for innovation because returns on investment may not happen overnight, but they will in the long run. Companies that invest early in macro trends will have a competitive advantage when those trends scale up.

2. Create an environment where it’s okay to fail. Experimenting is crucial to digital evolution. It’s important to note that innovation doesn’t only sit in one part of the company or on one team of engineers, for example. Everyone is a potential innovator. All employees need to feel comfortable voicing and trying different ideas. Whoever is closest to the problem is usually the best one to innovate and find, suggest, or create a new solution.

3. Companies and employees must become better collaborators.

Because of the convergence of technologies and of hardware, sensors, and software, collaboration is crucial for gaining the necessary expertise and innovating solutions. Consider non-traditional vendor relationships that can be more collaborative and allow for best-practice sharing. For example, we use our DesignSpark platform and collaborate with software companies to develop or customize software for our customers. Because DesignSpark is used by over four million engineers globally, we also use data from the platform to heighten our focus around services and solutions engineers need to design technology going into Industry 4.0 applications.

Start the Conversation

Most high-service distributors have access to millions of customers and millions of data points. Distributors are nimble and can make quicker decisions about what technology works and what doesn’t so the manufacturer doesn’t have to experiment as much. Every customer has something—or many things—unique to them, so the fact that distributors have a very broad view of technologies, applications, manufacturers, and suppliers across the ecosystem, makes it very easy for distributors to provide insights that customers wouldn’t otherwise have.

The power that connected devices bring to the industrial world has created a huge change for manufacturers, but the risk of drowning in data is high if you try and go it alone. Who better to advise on what technologies will have the most impact in your business than someone who not only touches so many parts of the ecosystem, but also has the widest view of the entire ocean? Think about the non-traditional partnerships that could help bring your business the expertise and value needed to innovate more quickly and keep pace with Industry 4.0.